Prison gardens fulfill several purposes

The two-acre produce garden at the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution provided 14,845 pounds of produce last year. About 1,600 of that was donated to the local food pantry, while the majority was served to inmates in the dining hall. (Photo provided)

The compost space, which is located right off the kitchen of the correctional institution, measures 35x35 and is filled with table scraps from the inmates’ meal trays. The compost area started three years ago and has already proved to increase the yield of the produce garden. (Provided photos)

The reflection garden offers a place where inmates can think about their victims and crimes and receive group therapy.

By Correne Martin
At the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCCI), gardening is a tool that is used to sustain the kitchen by providing fresh produce for meals. It is also a means of building character, knowledge and life skills for inmates who will need to give back and reintegrate into the community someday.

The correctional institution currently cultivates a two-acre produce garden that is supplemented with a small plant nursery, composting and vermiculture (a worm farm). It also maintains a reflection flower garden, 60 feet in diameter, where inmates can quietly think about their victims and crimes and receive group therapy.

“These opportunities have been enabled thanks to the creativity of the staff and minimal funds,” PDCCI Program Supervisor Lisa Pettera said.

The produce garden started about eight years ago. It was the size of a home garden in the beginning. Since then, it has grown to include herbs in addition to produce such as onions, cucumbers, beans, carrots, corn, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, beets, collard greens, watermelon, cantaloupe, rhubarb and more.

Jackie Wehrle, who supervises the kitchen, composting and the produce garden, said 14,845 pounds of produce were harvested from 2,000 plants in the correctional institution’s garden last year. In 2012, 11,659 pounds of produce were harvested. Most of that is used in the kitchen and served to inmates in the dining room daily; however, 1,618 pounds of food were donated to the CouleeCap Food Pantry in Prairie du Chien in 2013 and 890 pounds in 2012.

In the early stages of gardening season, three to five inmates take care of the garden on a rotational schedule, tilling the earth and preparing the site. On a peak summer day, according to Wehrle, around 10 inmates work together, hoeing, planting and dividing seeds, mixing and spreading compost,  weeding, and performing other hand work.

Pettera said the produce garden is monitored by cameras and the kitchen staff is there periodically to provide direction. Tools, wheelbarrows and other equipment are available in a shed alongside the garden. There is also a portapotty at the garden for inmate workers, who typically fill three-hour shifts. The workers are paid between $.12 and $.42 per hour.

Edward Patrisio, one of the inmate gardeners who is considered a minimum security inmate, grew up in Africa and came to PDCCI in January of 2013 with great gardening knowledge—based upon experience he gained helping his grandmother on her African farm as a youth.

“Gardening for me is relaxing. I love pulling weeds,” he said. “I’m, like, in my own world. When you grow something, it becomes part of you. Also, a lot of the guys say ‘good job’ when they’re eating fresh vegetables and fruits and they see me in the dining room.”

It’s clear Patrisio takes pride in his work.

He is also a believer in the benefits the compost has had on the produce garden. He said it has increased the yield from the garden.

Wehrle agreed. “Our gardens have very poor soil, since we’re very close to the river,” she said. “Since we started this, we’ve seen an improvement. We’ve also eliminated a whole lot of our waste.”

Wehrle explained the composting process, which the institution has used for three years now. Compost is generated in the dining room from inmates’ table scraps. After each meal, several inmate workers head out to the 35x35 compost area, which is located adjacent to the kitchen, and add the scraps to a windrow. Four or five windrows are made up of about two-thirds food and one-third sawdust. After the food is dumped in the windrows, it is typically kept under plastic for about two weeks in order for it to heat up. The compost is turned every few days. Usually, it takes a couple weeks before the compost starts to resemble dirt. When that occurs, the finished windrow is added to a large pile of compost and new table scraps are then added to the next windrow, and so on. Compost is hauled to the garden twice per season.

The worm farm is located in the basement of one of PDCCI’s buildings. Employee Mike Bailey and a few inmate workers are in charge of tending the vermiculture. About 40 beds—all at different stages—normally run at one time. The three- to four-month cycle starts out with beds of cardboard pieces and red wiggler worms. Most produce scraps from the dining room are ground and taken weekly to the worm farm, where they are fed to the worms.

“We make a sort of volcano in the middle,” Bailey said, “and put the food in the middle. The worms go to the food.”

“We didn’t know a lot about how to do this when we started, but we’ve been learning as we go,” Wehrle stated.

Gardening within the walls of the correctional institution has been a good learning experience for everyone involved, the staff and inmates alike.

Unlike other institutions, there is no horticulturist on staff. In general, the knowledge people bring to the table has been based upon skills and practices outside the institution, with the exception of some courses offered to the inmates in recent years by the Ridge and Valley Restorative Justice program and its volunteers. Formerly Crawford County Restorative Justice, the restorative justice volunteers, under the direction of leader Robin Cline, first started a gardening course at the institution in May of 2012. Inmate classes based upon a basic gardening curriculum were held weekly until November of 2013.

“The course was mostly intended for the guys who had no gardening knowledge at all,” Pettera said.

In late 2013, Cline left Ridge and Valley for a different job, leaving the classes in limbo. Since then, UW-Platteville student Matthew Lochowitz has developed a new curriculum for the program volunteers to build upon for the future. Main topics include small-space gardening  and community gardens, along with basic information on site selection, plant selection, invasive species, soil, composting, etc.
Pettera said she hopes to start offering the classes again soon.

Collectively, the restorative justice gardening course, the reflection garden, and the produce garden along with its contributing elements have achieved common goals at PDCCI. They have provided inmates with another way to productively use their time in the institution. In addition, they have taught community gardening to the inmates in hopes that increased hands-on skills and mental skills for character growth can help them become successful members of a community upon reintegration.

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